Pixar is renowned for original storytelling in the realm of animation. Often, the stories spun by these visionaries wonderfully meld style and substance together in a way that please both children and adults. And while the Cars franchise started off in this same vein, the sequel was a clear sub-par cash-grab. It’s easy to see why: merchandise from Cars was one of Disney’s biggest cash cows. You got keep that cow fat, so Cars 3 is the product. The plot, characters, and themes are familiar: anthropomorphic cars trying to win races to prove that they can still win races, with themes of obsolescence, expectation, following dreams, and believing in people (or, in this case, cars). Cars 3 is all of this and exactly nothing else, another lap around the track.
The plot of Cars 3 is full of basic tropes seen in sports dramas with aging players. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is nearing the end of his career, and new analytics-fueled racers are edging him and his cohorts out of the sport. Everyone is retiring, but McQueen is intent on adopting new training methods with the blessing of a new sponsor, Sterling (Natha Fillion). One of those methods includes a high-tech trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who always wanted to be a racer herself. You can see where this is going.
Most of the movie is McQueen running around the country two weeks before the first race of the season indulging in dubious training methods, and most of it is fairly predictable. I know it is a kid’s movie, but in general Pixar is not this banal. Still, there are some interesting tweaks that add to the otherwise rote story.
First, there’s some clever inclusion of heavy sports analytics. Any sports fan today would recognize the references to weird metrics and esoteric values. There’s even a number-crunching character who provides her analytic expertise on the Cars version of ESPN. Throughout the film, these advanced analytics continuously point to the new cars being faster, more efficient, and overwhelming favorites.
Far more powerful is a subplot with the trainer Cruz. There’s some subtlety involved with the introduction of her latent dreams and the reasoning behind why she never pursued them. It isn’t anything nefarious like overt sexism or nasty-talking bullies, but something far more human. In a film full of examples of playing to the most-common denominator and the likeliest plot continuation, this subplot is executed wonderfully.
As critical as I am of the narrative elements of Cars 3, the film is practically impeccable from a technical standpoint. The animation is sleek and vibrant, relying on vivid primary colors for most of the characters and set pieces. When the film needs to be a little more rough around the edges and pastoral (which is one of the major themes of the Cars franchise), it does a fine job capturing the rustic back roads of the country with dusty browns an run-down locales.
The racing and action sequences are also superb. A few adopt the same by-the-number approach as the film, but mostly these are during montage sequences anyway, so it is to be expected. The opening race and the climactic race are both crafted with a little more care and an eye towards the dramatic. Though it is always fairly clear what is going to happen, at the very least everything is entertaining and pretty.
Look, Cars is not Toy Story, and it never was. The characters are blunter, the themes less mesmerizing, and the story much more predictable. But even in a film that is more a re-branding of the franchise than a re-invigoration, Pixar is able to espouse a few powerful messages and a heap of entertainment. Cars 3 will never contend for anyone’s favorite Pixar film (even if you’re a huge fan of the franchise, it’s hard to say that the original isn’t clearly superior). But, the film is still much better than any cash-grab has any right to be.